It started with goosebumps, really, when a friend started talking about her past. At the beginning of our acquaintance, I was polite enough not to comment about the fact that her children had coffee-cream skin, huge brown eyes and dark, wavy hair while she was whiter than whitey white. But I was curious. And so when the subject came up, she told me the story, and it was one that I would never have guessed to be true.
I thought I was quite enlightened, tolerant, and open minded, but I discovered that I was as limited and ignorant as I could be, about the lives of women in other cultures. I thought Islam oppressed women. I was wrong. I thought Arabic culture was backward, limited, and two dimensional. I was wrong about that too.
From the moment I started researching this novel, I knew that every preconception I had possessed was based on nothing more than media sensationalism, and that in buying into those misdirections, I had missed out on a whole world of beauty, meaning and insight.
So to take Amanda’s story forward, I had to learn something entirely new. I had to change my world view. And this is what made me keep on writing. It’s fascinating, all of it, and it’s taught me lessons about myself as much as about Islam, Arabic culture, and women’s lives. Who was I to judge what women want, need, or feel? I knew nothing about these things. I still don’t. My perspective is still limited. I am looking through a tiny peephole into a vast world of colour, life, light and detail, and seeing one small corner of it. I can’t represent these women. But I can understand, and represent, what it’s like to be on the outside, looking in, and to realise that maybe I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to discover.
And at the root of it all, the story is about women, women’s lives, women’s worlds, and all the small details of home and children, food and conversation, friends and family and dealing with what life throws at you. And that is something universal, which unites every woman on the planet, as someone’s daughter, sister, wife, partner, friend or mother. Unknowing, we share the secret spaces of our lives, the same strengths and the same challenges, and have more in common than we realise.
That is why I had to write this novel.